They tell you that La Boca is unsafe – a dangerous neighbourhood where the chances of a good mugging go up exponentially as you wander away from Caminito, the colourful street of brightly painted houses that helped turn this once forgotten corner of Buenos Aires into one of its most successful tourist attractions. You must not walk there, they tell you. Terrible things will happen.
Heeding this advice, we took a taxi from the Plaza de Mayo, speeding past Parque Lezama, with its blue-domed Russian Orthodox Church, stone gazebos and shady tipa trees, and drove into La Boca, prepared for the worst.
En route we gawped through the taxi windows at normal Buenos Aires city life – families eating ice cream, kids terrorising pedestrians on veering bicycles, and the occasional PFA federal policeman here and there. The streets seemed bizarrely free from muggers and murderers, although I hear they tend not to advertise their presence.
Caminito is one of the city’s greatest success stories; perhaps one of the earliest forms of gentrification and a microcosm of what has happened across the city in the past two decades.
Legend has it that a local artist, depressed by the squalor of his neighbourhood back in the 50s, decided to paint his house in bold colours. His neighbours approved and decided they wanted to follow suit. Tins of paint were begged, borrowed and quite probably stolen from ships docked in nearby Puerto Madero, and the street was bathed in bright colour.
Sixty something years later, the neighbourhood hums with the excited chatter of tourists from all over the world. The streets flanking Caminito are lined with restaurants and cafés, where live tango shows take place every half hour and the tables are stacked high with bottles of Quilmes and Malbec.
Dodge the enthusiastic restaurant hosts and you’ll pass souvenir shops selling everything from Boca Juniors t-shirts to gourds for mate, the traditional Argentine tea. Every surface is painted in striking colours, and carnivalesque characters of Maradona, Evita and tango legend Carlos Gardel wave from balconies.
Beyond the three streets that make up the heart of the neighbourhood, you’ll find basketball courts covered in street art, secret gardens where the aroma of grilled meat wafts out into the street, and pathways running parallel to the railway tracks covered in graffiti.
I’m sure there is some substance behind the warnings not to stray to far beyond the central area, which is closely monitored by the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Police (one of four police forces active in the city). But it also strikes me that by containing visitors to this small pocket comprising two and a half streets, the city is preventing tourist dollars from flowing into other parts of the neighbourhood.
When the once run-down area known as Palermo Soho became trendy in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the surrounding districts all cashed in, some adopting the ‘Palermo’ denominator and increasing the size and importance of the neighbourhood. Palermo is now the largest barrio in greater Buenos Aires and property prices there are almost as high as the super rich neighbourhoods of Belgrano and San Isidro. I wonder why this hasn’t happened in La Boca.
Too much speculation for a Friday morning – here are the pictures.